The Art of Acting

      If I spelled out the last half of my 2008 in the right way, it could be a hit country song; complete with losing my two dogs in a divorce. Moving across the country to attend acting conservatory was the greatest move I could have made at the time, along with rooming with a fellow Combat Veteran. With my sister nearby on Long Island, I was fortunate to have trustworthy support while The American Academy of Dramatic Arts introduced me to the foreign world of myself. See, the one thing I did not expect was that in order to be honest in character, it would be essential to be honest with myself.

     Although my original intent for training as an Actor was to bring authenticity to Military characters on screen, it was only while studying acting that I began to understand how the Military affected my own character. However, Acting truly became therapeutic not through the exploration of my past and inner world, but by requiring me to fully commit to a character as a part of a greater scene. I don't mean talk or drama therapy, but the same healing artistic focus of a painter pouring emotions into brush strokes on canvas or a songwriter penning the human experience into rhythm and rhyme. 

     Acting is perhaps a misnomer, as true flow is found in honestly reacting. Success is found in balancing intentional presence with receptive curiosity, allowing the actors to perform a choreographed dance with spontaneous discovery. Effectively suspending reality through the creation of a more appealing alternative, successful actors can both reach catharsis and share it.     

     While a professional pursuit of Acting may be neither possible nor desirable for everyone, there are different ways to get involved in Acting from non-profit endeavors to community-based theater. With amazing digital cameras in most cell phones and how-to info everywhere online, short films can be a great way to explore the art. Much like playing an instrument or holding a paintbrush, Acting is scaleable to your life and is fun at any level. More importantly, any time you open your heart as an artist, you are bound to learn something new about yourself. Go try it!

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     To learn more about about Acting and how Veterans are getting involved in the Arts, visit the following organizations:

Theater of War

Veterans in Film & Television

United States Veterans Artists' Alliance

Dysfunctional Veteran: A Story of the Past

'It is this construction of reality that determines the therapeutic story of the recollected past and the projected future.' (HARE-MUSTIN,1994)

      Upon returning from combat, Veterans find themselves at a crossroads. The Warrior's Path offers a lifetime of holistic healing and transformations, allowing the Veteran to serve as a community leader, mentor to the youth and advocate for peace and diplomacy. In Warrior cultures throughout history, this path was not only an option but a calling, a responsibility. In modern society, the entrance is difficult to locate and the path itself nearly impossible to navigate on one's own. Many Veterans, without proper guidance and support, choose a different path, that of the Dysfunctional Veteran. One might argue that returning Veterans aren't choosing this destructive path but, simply, accepting a dominant discourse that appears to be the only choice.

      Combat experience inevitably steals innocence, graphically illustrates mortality and strips away blind faith in humanity. The psychological trauma incurred on the battlefield also seems to, in many cases, further solidify the indoctrination and desensitization of Basic and Advanced Military Training. In the crude language of war-fighters, it is said that ‘war is hell, but life thereafter is a motherfucker’. The sudden return home often propels the Veteran, seemingly alone, into an arena of self-doubt entangled with ‘self-ruinous notions of returning or remaining’ (D. Egbert, personal communication, 2013). Attempting to transition back into civilian life often seems more difficult than combat, leading many Veterans to re-enlist and return to the very source of their suffering, risking life and limb to avoid the pain of life after war.

      The psychological wounds of war, as recorded throughout history, are a universal human experience and ‘it is our own culture that has socially constructed this universal as a psychiatric condition, burdening the individual veteran with all the negative consequences that implies’ (Brooke, 2009). Following World Wars I & II, manifestations of the Combat Trauma were considered signs of weakness and asking for help was not honorable. Post Vietnam, the term 'shell-shock' gained popularity but those affected remained misunderstood and became stigmatized. Considered mentally weak or crazy, shell-shocked Veterans were termed 'dysfunctional'. At a time when returning home meant being spit on and reviled by their own country, many Veterans took ownership of that label and, today, 'Dysfunctional Veteran' is seen on bumper stickers, t-shirts and baseball caps across the country. To the extreme detriment of Warrior Culture, Veterans internalized this outside perspective and adopted it as their own story. The more recent designation of Post Traumatic Stress as a Disorder, a mental health issue, a psychiatric condition, offered Veterans pathological assurance that they are and, most likely, will remain Dysfunctional Veterans.

      A dominant discourse in the Veteran community, the Dysfunctional Veteran story appears to provide the simplest explanation of the altered reality of post war living. No longer does the Veteran have to analyze the experience of war and translate it into lessons for abetter living and more peaceful future. No longer does the Veteran have to be responsible for his or her own healing. No longer does the Veteran have to hide manifestations of psychological wounds of war and pretend to re-integrate into a society no longer understood or understanding. Telling the story of a Dysfunctional Veteran can also be a disclaimer and an apology to family, friends and community. It can be a blanket explanation for mood swings, memory lapses, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms that may otherwise translate as personal to a loved one or co-worker.

      Perhaps the most detrimental aspect to the Dysfunctional Veteran story is that it offers entrance into an established community of self-proclaimed Dysfunctional Veterans, with elders, peers and even outside support already in place. Mimicking a healthy community, this group offers little more than reinforcement of the dysfunctional story and assurance that holistic healing is not an option. With multiple generations of voices echoing the same story, an illusion of reality surrounds the Veteran, often leading to a lifetime of pain and suffering, over medication and substance abuse. However, a community that loses an estimated 22 Veterans to suicide every day (KEMP & BOSSARTE, 2013) cannot retain it's members nor attract new recruits with the ease of yesteryear.

      Post 9/11 Veterans, as they are officially designated, are fervently fighting back against this dominant discourse in an attempt to end the suicide epidemic, as well as, seek life beyond survival on an individual level. Losing an astonishing number of fellow Warriors to prescription addictions, substance abuse and suicide has sent shock waves through the entire Veteran population. Straying from the path of the Dysfunctional Veteran and attempting to understand the complexities of combat trauma, moral injury and psychological wounds of war, Veterans are creating change. Reconnecting to the community through movies, poetry, plays, music, paintings and telling individual and collective stories in terms other than dysfunctional, Veterans are slowly blazing a trail through years of social construction in an endeavor to find and walk the Warrior's Path. In their favor, Veterans take pride in 'leaving no one behind'. Veterans who are discovering the Warrior's Path and working towards holistic healing are raising the flags, showing other self-proclaimed Dysfunctional Veterans that it is possible to tell a different story. Together and alone, they work towards re-authoring their recollected past and projected future in a manner befitting true Warriors.

 

REFERENCES

 

BROOKE,R. (2012). An archetypal perspective for combat trauma. Retrieved from the Bulletin of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology,Volume13, Issue 1, Fall 2012.

 

HARE-MUSTIN,R. T. (1994). Discourses in the mirrored room: A postmodern analysis of therapy. Family process,33(1),19-35.

 

KEMP,J., & BOSSARTE, R. (2013). Suicide Data Report: 2012.Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Services, Suicide Prevention Program.

 

 

Re-Imagined and Re-Authored

     Although the vivid events of the evening are painted in explicit detail across the canvas of my mind, I do not recall the weather, the day of week or even the name of the play. I do know the year was 2006 and my entire family was attending a winter theatre production in Western Canada. As usual, my mom had orchestrated seats and the evening to our preferences–with Papa in the exit seat for restroom breaks and me in the next seat for tactical reasons. Since my return from Iraq, my mother had learned to quietly ensure I was able to sit facing the door or in whichever seat would appease my hyper-vigilance and allow me to relax somewhat. Outside, I was still scanning rooftops for snipers and choosing alleyways over sidewalks whenever alone. Tonight however, I was able to relax into the warmth of family and the magical world being created on stage.
    Brilliant actors were in revolutionary-era uniforms indicative of British soldiers and scenes were set in a winter of Christmas past. With intricate lighting cues and excellent stage managing, the theater seemed to warm with the flicker of fake campfires and shudder with a distinct chill when an actor leaned into the howling of wind. The accents were charming and around the warmth of such a campfire, two characters removed their overcoats and warmed their hands.
    As with many of my memories from combat, the instant in the play when conflict was initiated is recorded with the type of clarity and detail possible only with the traumatic distortion of time. Looking back, I can almost enjoy the reactions of the actors to the whistling of incoming artillery rounds accompanied by loud explosions and carefully sequenced strobe lights as entirely passable; except for those around me who witnessed the reaction of a combat veteran. My state of suspended reality imploded into a tornado of past experience, current hyper-vigilance and complete what-the-fuck-ness.
    Adrenaline lifted me forward and up as I knew my skills as a medic would momentarily be needed in the struggle to save multiple lives, including potentially my family. No longer were the actors on stage in a play, nor were they enemy combatants or dead friends; they were simply more defenseless lives in this building which was under the type of attack I knew so well. Without digressing into the addictive flow of combat, the type of adrenaline that surges through a medic's veins while witnessing a mass-casualty event would be indescribable by even the Hulk himself, Dr. Bruce Banner. In an instant, my hometown had become a battleground and the bottom dropped out from under me as I realized I was without my squad, my weapon and my medic bag.
    The military “OODA Loop” is comprised of observing, orienting, deciding and, only then, acting. Fortunately, my training proved as strong as my instinctive impulse to respond. In the first nano-seconds and final stages of orienting to the new combat scenario around me, I scanned quickly side to side to assess the safety of my family.
    To my great relief, they were safe and intact. In fact, they were not concerned about the incoming artillery at all; nor were they enjoying the play any longer. My entire family was looking at me with incredible shock and concern, as though I were the one hit by the simulated explosions and indeed I was. Disoriented, I experienced a helplessness reminiscent of when I was wounded in combat.
    With massive energy suddenly suspended like the crest of a gigantic wave, I observed and absorbed the gut-wrenching reactions from faces I had seen since birth. I had hurt them. How could I have brought the stench of combat into this ornate theater, a tactical mindset to a peaceful outing or my soiled self into this innocent family? Without understanding that what I was experiencing was normal, I judged myself and the energy I had built up instantly found an easy outlet in shame and guilt.
    Crashing down into the seat, I collapsed with my head between my knees; sobbing and shaking. I remember my grandfather's strong hands, thumbs moving and fingers steady as he held my arm. I remember my mother's words, comforting me in tones so familiar from times past. I remember being entirely surrounded and supported by the love of my family. However, what remains the most vivid and haunting memory to this day is the look of pain on my father's always gentle and kind face.
    I do not remember the rest of the play or if we even stayed; in fact, I do not remember anything from that trip before or after this event. For nearly a decade, my self-judgment remained intact as evidence of my disability and a barrier to pursuing healing. Tears flow even now as I reflect–despite the fact I have found and accepted forgiveness—indicating even additional layers of healing still now.

 

re-imagining as my father

    Oh my heart. I felt terrible! It was a George Bernard Shaw play entitled, Saint Joan, and although I read the book it never occurred to me that the medieval context would align with the reality of combat in the middle east. This was also before Judy and I knew anything about PTSD or that our son was affected by his experience in combat. Although I served in the Air Force during the Korean War and my father occupied Japan during WWII, Matt was the first of our family in a five generations to see true combat and as a medic. I had no common point to begin conversation and was not sure that Matt would want to talk about it.
    Up until Matt was affected, this evening had been another wonderful time with my family. My father was in town and Matt was safe home from Iraq. Truly nothing could have been better in my eyes than us all together, having fun and being grateful for each other. Then the simulated artillery began and I looked to my left to see my son's reaction. I cannot imagine what Matt felt and I am not sure that I would want to know the depths. Simply witnessing him experience what some might call a “flashback” was enough to bring my stomach into a large knot in my throat. How could I not have seen this coming? How could I not have protected my son from this seemingly incredible pain?
    Possibly the worst part about the situation was that, in the moment, I was unable to help my son. As Matt sat with heaving shoulders and silent sobs, all any of us could do was attempt to comfort him. Logically, I could add his experience with the external stimuli and understand that he was triggered. We knew nothing further at the time except that Matt was hurt and we had caused it, inadvertent or not. All we could do was love and support him, with the intent of not making him feel judged.
    Although Matt was within my reach, he may as well have been across the universe for a couple seemingly-endless moments. Slowly regaining control and breathing deeply in between seemingly involuntary sobs, Matt sat back in his chair and I felt a bit of relief. The worst of the experience seemed to be over and shortly we were heading back to the car. Although he was too shaken up to pretend otherwise, Matt returned to his usual task of caring for others and offering jokes to lighten the mood.
    Knowing your child is affected so deeply by something you do not understand is a helpless and sickening feeling. I made the best decisions I could to raise and protect my children, after which Matt had gone to combat. Although that was a nerve-wracking period that included a devastatingly vague phone call regarding our son receiving a head injury, this new battle appeared to be more intimidating. I had heard about PTSD in the news regarding several extreme cases involving domestic abuse and violence. My son seemed as far from those as he was the Vietnam stereotypes we knew of.
    Matt chose not to talk to me about the incident and that was okay with me. The father in me desperately wanted to help my son but I did not have much to go on. I held faith that Matt felt our love, support and non-judgment regarding the theatre experience, as well as, the love of our Almighty Father.

 

re-membering as a son


    As a new father, I often find myself revisiting moments from my past with my newfound paternal perspective. The love I experience for my daughter has added layers of understanding to my own past, including several unresolved memories to which I clung with various forms of negative attachment. Although my tenure as a father is limited and the learning curve seems exponential to date, the first moment I saw Leona changed my entire outlook. Attempting to re-imagine events from my father’s perspective quickly exposed negative identity conclusions, that I had simply accepted as truth. When “conclusions are deprived of the truth status that has been assigned to them — these conclusions cease to carry the authority that they did” (White, 2001).
    I did not speak with my family about the incident that day as I continued to buy into the dominant narrative of the soldier as a silent professional for another decade. I now know they would have been happy to hear me out and a conversation would have been mutually beneficial to a life changing extent. No matter my age or experience, I will remain the loved and protected son of my father. With the amount of love I know exists within my family and true friendships, sharing experiences may have led to research and the search for healing. Instead, I stayed stuck in my own dangerous perspective for a long time before finally realizing I needed to be receptive to the experiences of others to more comprehensively understand my own.

 

REFERENCES
White, Michael. (2001).  "Narrative Practice and the Unpacking of Identity Conclusions." Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications (p.1-24).